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You could say this world is more connected than it’s ever been. Friends, family, and strangers who live miles apart can communicate instantly thanks to social media and email. Anyone can hop on a plane from New York City and reach Los Angeles in just hours. In large metropolitan melting pots across the globe, thousands of people from different countries and cultures mingle and break bread. It’s as if time and space are collapsing, bringing all sorts of people closer to one another — yet so many of us feel lonely and can’t seem to shake it.
Even before the pandemic [this article was written in early 2020], researchers claim that the U.S. is experiencing a “loneliness epidemic.” In a 2018 survey, conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), experts discovered that about 22% of Americans say they constantly feel alone. Such prolonged feelings of isolation can come with serious health problems, both mental and physical. Feelings of isolation are often associated with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Doctors have also found that people who are lonely tend to have increased blood pressure, weaker immune systems, and more inflammation throughout the body.
Turns out, connectedness not only makes our lives more interesting, it’s vital for our own survival.
So what should you do when you're feeling blue without anyone to lean on? Here’s what therapists, doctors, and researches say are some of the best strategies to cope with loneliness:
1. Name it. Validate it.
Telling other people you’re lonely can feel scary, shameful, and self-defeating. But expressing that feeling can be the beginning of releasing it.
“We tend to stigmatize loneliness in the U.S., equating it with being a loner or a loser,” says Kory Floyd, Professor of Communication and Psychology at the University of Arizona. “That stigma encourages us to avoid admitting when we’re lonely. Denying our loneliness only perpetuates it, so before we can recover, we have to be honest — at least with ourselves — about what we are experiencing.”
2. Take stock of connections you already have.
Sometimes when we are feeling lonely, we can’t see what’s right in front of us.
“Many of us get tunnel vision when it comes to affection and intimacy, in that we ‘count’ only certain behaviors while discounting others,” says Professor Floyd. “I might notice that my friends don’t tell me they love me, or don’t ‘like’ my social media posts, but I overlook the fact that they always volunteer to help when I have a home project to do. When people expand their definitions of affection and love to include a wider range of behaviors, they often discover that they aren’t as deprived as they originally thought.”
3. Recognize you are not alone (in feeling lonely).
If 22% of Americans constantly feel lonely, know that if you’re feeling isolated, you’re sharing the same experience with millions of other people.
“[When I'm lonely] I remind myself just how pervasive loneliness is and I imagine being connected to ‘all of the lonely people out there’. Sometimes I listen to Eleanor Rigby [by the Beatles] to hammer that point home,” says Megan Bruneau, therapist and executive coach. “Loneliness is a healthy emotion, revealing places we yearn for connection.”
4. Get curious. Ask questions.
Recognize that loneliness looks different for people at different times of their lives, and that there are those who have many relationships, but still feel like something is missing. Ask yourself what loneliness looks like for you.
“It’s important to differentiate between situational loneliness and chronic loneliness,” says Bruneau. “Most people feel lonely from time to time, especially in today’s individualistic, independence-valuing, more-single-than-ever-culture. However, if I’m feeling loneliness more frequently than usual, I get curious about the shift. Has something changed in my relationships leading me to feel more disconnected? Have I been nurturing my current connections and creating opportunities for new ones that make me feel ‘seen’? Am I intentionally or accidentally isolating [myself]?”
Whether our loneliness is brief or chronic, questions like these can help direct us to the best way to cope, she suggests.
5. Take the time to slow down.
If you’re frequently busy, running around with your to-do list, or feel stressed by all the meetings at work, it might be time to hit the brakes.
“Sometimes when people’s schedules are back-to-back for too long, they start disconnecting from themselves and other people,” says Judith Orloff, MD, psychiatrist and author of Thriving as an Empath. “They get overwhelmed from overworking and too much stimulation. So the practice [then] is just to relax and do what their body needs.”
Perhaps that relaxing for you could mean listening to music, taking a bath, or just sitting with nothing to do and nowhere to be.
6. Reconnect with self-love and appreciation.
You can use alone time to get back in touch with you.
“You have to be your own best friend,” says Dr. Orloff. “I go to my sacred space and I meditate. I take a few deep breaths, relax, and ask worry, fear, and loneliness to lift so I can just be with myself.”
She recommends that those who are new to meditation can try to sit for three minutes and focus on something they find pleasing — like the ocean or dolphins — or any simple things they are grateful for. “Focusing on what you're grateful for rather than what you don't have shifts the negative thinking,” she says.
Being alone and strolling through nature can be meditative, too.
7. Perform anonymous acts of kindness.
And recognize the kindness in others! Sometimes when you feel alone, you might feel like isolating yourself from the world, which only continues the cycle of loneliness. In that case, finding a group of friends to hang out with or dropping into a large social scene can feel like a lot. So why not consider starting small?
“Go out into the world and notice a smile from the store clerk,” says Dr. Orloff. “Hold a door for somebody or do something nice for a stranger and then you start to get the endorphins and the oxytocin going in your body. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. It’s what mothers have when they give birth. So oxytocin is important.”
If you are feeling a bit more extroverted, you might even try starting conversations.
“Get out every day and have a conversation, face-to-face, with your neighbor, a friend, your grocer, the librarian — in short, any one whom you might meet regularly,” says Susan Pinker, psychologist and author of The Village Effect. This doesn’t have to be a close relationship. Research tells us that even weak bonds strengthen our immunity and well-being.”
8. Give back to your community.
Another way to create new, meaningful relationships can be going into your immediate community to volunteer. “The key is to focus on others rather than yourself,” says Ruth Wolever, PhD, a professor and director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “One of the best things to do for loneliness is to begin to build a better social network. Community organizations, religious groups, and social groups around shared interest provide wonderful ways to connect with others.”
Wolever, who serves as an executive board member of the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching, explains that joining a group focused on charity work rather than a common interest (like an intramural sports team or a book club) may provide an easier opportunity to socialize, as you’ll be working in tandem on the task at hand. You won’t feel “on the spot” to put yourself out there and make new connections if you’re already aligned on getting something done.
Simply getting out of the house and doing something selfless on its own is “one of the best ways” to battle feelings of isolation, Wolever says, even if you don’t walk away with a new friend immediately. You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding an organization that needs your help in your area — but if you’re looking for somewhere to start, Wolever recommends MeetUp, a social-driven community board that may clue you in to charity work in your area.
9. Join a club.
Perhaps you are looking to develop more of those deep meaningful relationships. In that case, you might want to explore hobbies with other people to form bonds over common interests.“This could be a class or a committee,” Pinker says. “Any activity that puts you in a social environment on a regular basis.” Vibe with someone over your love for pottery at a local art class. Find a group of people who are just as obsessed with Game of Thrones as you are. Or maybe try something completely new, like goat yoga. You can have fun with this.
10. Put your hand over your heart.
Lack of physical connection can be the cause of loneliness. When we were babies, our bodies were trained to respond to physical touch as a form of communication and connection with our caregivers — especially when “goo goo gaga” didn't quite cut it.
So, even if you don’t consider yourself a touchy-feely person, physical contact has always been at the center of feeling safe, secure, and cared for. But know that you don't need a lover, a friend, or a massage therapist to give you a reassuring caress. Placing your hand over your heart could do it.
“Our bodies registers the care we give ourselves in a similar way that it registers the care we get from others through physical touch,” says Dr. Kristin Neff, associate professor at the University of Texas and author of Self-Compassion. “‘Supportive’ touch works with the person’s parasympathetic nervous system, which actually helps calm us down and reduces cortisol and releases oxytocin.”
Everyone, however, is different, Dr. Neff says. Some people prefer a hand on the stomach. Others prefer holding their face. Some love hugging themselves. If you’re by your lonesome, this could be a chance to figure out how to be your own buddy.
11. Create something.
Sketch. Paint. Knit. Anything to get your creative juices flowing.
“Creative arts have an extraordinary capacity to elevate and transcend our negative emotional experiences through self-expression, as well as to connect us more deeply and authentically with each other,” says Dr. Jeremy Nobel, MPH and the founder of The UnLonely Project.
One of Dr. Nobel's favorite strategies is expressive writing. Jotting down thoughts and feelings you recognize others may be experiencing has a similar result as, say, going to the movies. At the theater you share a room with a group of people — perhaps strangers — who are all witnessing the same journey with you. Even if you don’t talk to anyone, you and the entire audience are connected through shared experience, Dr. Nobel explains. Mentally, the same thing happens when you write, even if you never share it with a soul. Although, sharing could be a healthy way to find connection among others.
12. Adopt a pet.
Recent research out of the Pew Center suggests that most people link loneliness to strife within their own families and social circles. If you're feeling a hole in your social life, why not fill it with a playful force that'll be available to you around the clock? Arpit Aggarwal, MD, a psychiatrist within the University of Missouri Health Care system, suggests that seeking out a furry friend may help you find more satisfaction in your day to day life. If you can manage the responsibility, rescuing a new pet (whether it be a dog, cat, or even a bird) may help you feel more fulfilled in your day to day routine.
13. Check your social media usage.
While the jury is still out on whether or not the rise of social media is driving loneliness and depression, it doesn’t hurt to reevaluate the influence it has on your life.
Are you using it to make meaningful connections? Are you spending too much time on it? Is it causing you to withdraw in unhelpful ways?
“If we feel dissatisfied with our face-to-face relationships, we [often] retreat into the world of social media, which only exacerbates the problem,” says Professor Floyd of the University of Arizona. “On social media, it seems as though everyone else has better jobs, better houses, better vacations, and better relationships than we do. That isn’t actually true, of course.”
If Instagram and Facebook are dragging you down, it might be time for a temporary screen detox.
14. Reevaluate that nightcap.
Since loneliness can often be associated with other mental health disorders, including clinical anxiety and depression, there are many lifestyle changes you could make that may alleviate the severity of your symptoms. Getting enough exercise during the week and establishing a healthy sleep routine is at the top of the list for some, but taking stock of how much you are drinking (as well as any recreational drug use) may also help you avoid feelings of isolation.
“Avoid using alcohol to manage your feelings, as this can generally make these conditions worse,” says Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College and host of the upcoming Personology podcast. Alcohol, like other drugs, can amplify feelings of psychological depression, and drinking to avoid feeling lonely can easily lead to addiction as you develop tolerance over time. “[Alcohol] may actually take the edge off one’s anxiety, but then in a couple of weeks you’ll need more to feel that same relief — and this is how addiction starts.”
While you don’t have to totally abstain from alcohol, Dr. Saltz says cutting back on how much you drink on a daily basis may actually lessen the intensity of your feelings of loneliness over a longer period of time.
15. Try to push yourself, and recognize when you can’t.
Understanding that you are experiencing feelings of loneliness is a step in the right direction — but can you actually act upon those feelings? Dr. Howard L. Forman, MD, a New York City-based psychiatrist and psychotherapist, says that the motivation to actually try and feel more balanced among your peers may be a sign that you can cope in the first place. “If you sign up for a gym class or seek out meetings with friends or contacts, it's a tip-off that you may be lonely, but you're motivated to actually address it.”
There isn’t a clear-cut path to feeling free of being lonely, but Dr. Forman says simply trying your hand at something new may help to break through to better times ahead. “If you try enough things, likely, one of them is going to pay off at some point.” He adds that feeling lonely is often episodic and not something that should feel like a life sentence; any one of these strategies could help move the process along.
Simply trying new things when you really have no desire to do so, however, isn't going to alleviate the situation. It’s important to take action if nothing is helping you feel better. “If loneliness becomes hopelessness, please seek out professional help. Loneliness can drive someone into serious mental health conditions that you may not be able to tackle on your own,’ Dr. Forman says.
16. Work with a mental health professional.
Sometimes we need professional help to escape the dark thoughts keeping us in isolation.
“One of the most destructive effects of long-term loneliness is that it distorts our cognitions about ourselves,” says Professor Floyd. “We come to believe that if we are lonely, we deserve to be lonely and that no one will ever love us the way we want. Those thoughts in turn guide our actions in ways that end up keeping us lonely. Cognitive behavioral therapy is designed to bring our thoughts and behavior better in line with reality.”
If you’re struggling with loneliness, anxiety, or depression and need professional help, the American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator tool can help you find a licensed therapist in your area that takes your insurance.